Bon Iver are one of those groups that I feel that I should be absolutely head over heels for but I just am not. Yes, Justin Vernon is an incredibly talented artist and For Emma, Forever Ago is one of the best records of the past decade but my love ends around their. Vernon’s various collaborations from James Blake to Frank Ocean to Kanye West have all been solid and while I liked Bon Iver, Bon Iver it is not a record I find myself going back to often.
When I heard Bon Iver were going to be shifting from their traditional folk sound to something more electronic, I was excited to see where they would take this record. Early buzz was also really strong, with critics comparing this to Sufjan Stevens’ Age of Adz, another phenomenal record, and the legendary Kid A. With comparisons like that, how could I not be at least a little pumped for 22, A Million.
The first, most obvious, thing I can say about this record is that it does not come close to those two records in terms of not only quality but also in how much it really breaks the mold. Those are records that I feel really made an impact, Kid A especially, and this sounds more like it is riding a trend than taking a new approach. This is not to say Bon Iver have put together a bad album, and I do not necessarily blame them as much as I blame the critics that overhyped this record.
Vernon’s artistry is actually pretty apparent on the first track “22 (Over S∞∞n)” which is probably one of the better examples of what I think Vernon was trying to accomplish here. The synth that drags through the track does not subtract from my enjoyment and the actual instrumentation is quite well done, especially the saxophone that shows up towards the end of the track. It was a perfect way to start the album off in my opinion.
Beyond this song, the first half of this record has some pretty unforgivable issues. “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠” sounds like a mid-2000s era Radiohead knock off, with a wild beat that does not compliment Vernon’s voice at all. Vernon’s voice is completely manipulated on “715 – CRΣΣKS” so any real connection or feeling of emotive energy is taken away. I probably enjoy “33 ‘God’” more than most, again feeling more inspired by In Rainbows by Radiohead than a knock off and Vernon’s delivery is accompanied by some genuine folk instrumentation. The electronics also did not get too overbearing for me here.
Once those few tracks are over, the album takes a drastic turn for the better, as the electronics begin to be utilized in a more controlled way. “29 #Strafford APTS” is a well-constructed folk track, with occasional vocal filters but honestly the lush instrumentation makes up for it, bringing me back to the better songs on Bon Iver, Bon Iver. This also goes for “666 ʇ” which is not quite as good as the preceding song but exceeds in allowing Vernon to continue to prove how easily he can evoke an emotional response from a listener.
The track transitions smoothly into “21 M♢♢N WATER” which goes a little off the walls with its production but it does not take away from Vernon’s performance in the way the earlier tracks on the album did which is why I am confident giving it a pass here. Especially when it builds so beautifully into “8 (Circle)” another beautiful track that exceeds in its reservations to be overly showy.
“____45_____” is an excellent bridge to “00000 Million,” seeming to describe Vernon’s destructive battle with depression and how it has eaten him up. The closing track is almost stripped free of all the electronic production, feeling like classic Bon Iver and the song really excels in painting another heartbreaking look at battling depression.
Lyrically, the themes of this album are solid, just not executed excellently. The songs can feel a little fragmented at times, making it difficult to really decipher the deeper meaning that you feel must be in the lyrics. It is clear that Vernon has suffered emotional instability since his last record and is using this as an outlet to showcase that pain. It would explain the crazy first half and the consistent theme of religion, which Vernon has seemed to move away from in his time of pain. Many of these songs, like “33 ‘God’” and “666 ʇ” show this internal struggle, I just wish Vernon explored these themes a little deeper.
By the end, once I got over the hype that this album had received, I begun to appreciate it a little more with each listen. It is definitely sloppy, inconsistent and at times pretentious, just look at those song titles, but I can see this album growing on me over time and I hope Bon Iver can get these basic post-production issues ironed out to further perfect their sound on whatever they decided to do next.
Best Tracks: 22 (OVER S∞∞N), 33 “GOD,” 29 #Strafford APTS, 8 (Circle), 00000 Million
Worst Track: 715 – CRΣΣKS